Online Extra: Federal historic status sought for SF Japantown site with LGBT ties

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday October 2, 2019
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A 1964 photo shows the facade of the YWCA/Issei Women's Building in San Francisco's Japantown. Photo: Courtesy the San Francisco Public Library Historic Photograph Collection.
A 1964 photo shows the facade of the YWCA/Issei Women's Building in San Francisco's Japantown. Photo: Courtesy the San Francisco Public Library Historic Photograph Collection.

A property in San Francisco's Japantown that has ties to the early LGBT rights movement is a step closer to receiving federal historic status. City preservation officials and the property owners are seeking to have it listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

California's State Historical Resources Commission is expected to vote in support of the historic designation for the 1830 Sutter Street property, known as the Japanese YWCA/Issei Women's Building, at its November 7 meeting. San Francisco's Historic Preservation Commission voted 5-0 at its meeting Wednesday (October 2) to back the national register listing.

Famed architect Julia Morgan designed the building, pro bono, for a group of first generation Japanese immigrant women as they were barred from using the YWCA's other facilities. The original two-story-over-basement, wood frame structure was constructed in 1932 and sports an eclectic Japanese-inspired style. (An addition also designed in a Japanese-inspired style was built in 2017.)

The Japantown Y site, in May 1954, was where the pioneering gay rights group the Mattachine Society hosted its first convention, according to the city's LGBTQ historic context statement. Bayard Rustin, the late gay African American Quaker and civil rights leader, also taught a course at the site, according to research done by Donna Graves.

A public historian based in Berkeley, Graves co-wrote the historic context statements for both San Francisco's Japantown and LGBTQ community. She was hired by the city to prepare the nomination for the Japantown YWCA building, which is now occupied by the private, nonprofit childcare center Nihonmachi Little Friends.

"Another aspect of LGBTQ history that has left it hidden to many is that for many years, queer organizations could not afford the cost and visibility of property ownership," noted Graves in her nomination report. "Much history has occurred in places not owned or controlled by LGBTQ people and organizations ... The Japanese YWCA fits this pattern."

As the Bay Area Reporter noted in a 2016 story, the planning department received a $55,000 Underrepresented Communities Grant from the Department of the Interior to pursue listing three city properties on the National Register of Historic Places. The Japantown building was one of the sites chosen, as was Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in the Tenderloin, which also has a strong connection to the local LGBT community.

In her nomination report for the Japantown Y, Graves wrote that the site also "appears to be the only building purpose-built by and for Issei women in the United States." Because of discriminatory property rights laws in California, the San Francisco YWCA held the title to the property in a trust for the Japanese American women. Then, due to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the building came under the umbrella of the American Friends Service Committee.

The Japantown Y building was included on the list of properties identified in the LGBTQ history document Graves co-wrote as possibly eligible for listing as a city landmark or included on the California Register and/or the National Register of historic properties. According to Graves' research, Rustin taught a seven-week course about addressing racial discrimination at the Japantown Y in the summer of 1943 through the friends group.

"Rustin, like most gay men of his generation, was extremely discreet about his homosexuality. As a black man with a history of leftist activism, including membership in the Young Communist League, Rustin was especially vulnerable to the harassment and stigma that being gay in mid-twentieth century America drew," noted Graves.

During the Mattachine Society's convention held at the building, according to Graves' report, "Bernice Engle, a research associate at the University of California's Langley Porter Clinic, spoke at the convention awards banquet about the 'Sexual deviation Research Project' she and Dr. Karl Bowman were conducting for the State of California." And Graves noted, an award was given to the Institute for Sex Research (later known as the Kinsey Institute), founded in 1947 at Indiana University and known for its groundbreaking studies into human sexuality.

"For one weekend, 1830 Sutter Street was part of a national network of LGBTQ people and allies working to expand understanding of sexuality and gender expression," wrote Graves.

According to a history of the Japanese bilingual childcare provider posted to its website, when it bought the historic building in March 2002, amid a settlement of a lawsuit the community had filed in an effort to save the building after the local YWCA had put it up for sale, it agreed as part of the purchase agreement it had a "responsibility to protect and promote the historic legacy of its Issei (first generation) women founders."

Listing the property on the National Register will "promote the building's unique history and cultural significance," Nihonmachi Executive Director Cathy Inamasu told the historic preservation oversight body at its meeting Wednesday.

Commissioner Jonathan Pearlman, a gay man and local architect, said reading through the listing nomination report "just really moved me because at every stage, I think as one of you said, it is about doing what's right."

And commissioner Richard S.E. Johns added, "It is not totally about everybody being on their best behavior. That is also important."

Should the state panel vote next month to recommend listing on the National Register, then the nomination is sent to the State Historic Preservation Officer for approval. The Keeper of the National Register in Washington, D.C. makes the final determination within 45 days after receipt of the nomination from the state officer.

It would become only the fourth property on the West Coast listed on the national register due to its place in LGBT history. The most recent to be listed was the San Francisco Women's Building last year. There are a little more than two-dozen LGBT properties across the country given such federal recognition.

To see the various properties, visit